Majestic rot

Compelling new work by Neal T. Walsh and William Schaff
By GREG COOK  |  April 15, 2008
POWERFUL: Walsh’s The Clearing.

Providence artist Neal Walsh’s great new abstract paintings bring to mind peeling paint, rust, and cracking plaster in old mills or houses, maybe the wall in the hall of an apartment building. On view at 5 Traverse gallery — along with work by Warren’s William Schaff — they embody the romance of ruins, capturing a particularly Providence love of old buildings and their majestic rot. But they also reach toward humanity’s ancient awe of ruins from Egypt to Greece to Mexico — to Edward Hopper’s sagging Victorian homes and tired city streets.
Walsh, the gallery director at AS220, corrals these textures and moods into squares and rectangles and grids painted on canvas and plywood. Whitebreakers (2006) looks like an old white plaster wall scratched and weathered until old layers of red, green, and cream paint underneath show through. The left two-thirds of Without Notice (2008) looks as if rusty water has puddled atop some crusty crud — actually bits of pigment and gold leaf. A stained and speckled square of rumpled newspaper fills the upper right corner. Below it, Walsh painted a rectangle of yellow ochre with a crisp left edge where it overlaps the brown. Notice his careful attention to edges. Sometimes he doesn’t quite paint to the edge, so things raggedly trail off, revealing the history of his process in overlapping layers of paint. Sometimes he paints a hard stripe along the edge that asserts itself like the period at the end of a sentence.
These are slow-burn, elegantly composed, meditative abstractions by an artist clearly in full command of his craft. My only hesitation is, could they be too tasteful? Walsh’s style is rooted in American abstract painting of the ‘40s to ’60s. He tells me that one inspiration is Matt McCormick’s 2001 documentary film The Subconscious Art of Graffiti Removal, which half-jokingly compares the patchwork shapes of painted-over graffiti to Mark Rothko paintings. Walsh’s stripes recall Barnett Newman and Richard Diebenkorn. (For Walsh, the lines and sections symbolize the transitions and divisions between one part of your life and the next.) A grid brings to mind Agnes Martin.

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  Topics: Museum And Gallery , Painting, Visual Arts, Edward Hopper,  More more >
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